A few weeks I finished another story in a series that I have been reading for the last year. It had it’s moments, and some flaws, and things I didn’t like, but overall it was a fair book. Then the end happened and a GREAT BIG HUGE CLIFFHANGER fell into my lap and I was tempted to throw my kindle. The next book isn’t out, won’t be out for another year, and….it was annoying.
Granted, that emotional response I had was probably exactly what the author was going for. He wanted the reader to hang onto the words, and at the very end he wanted to make the reader come back for more. It’s slightly underhanded, but works really well if the story is good. Game of Thrones (TV series) has that going on. Lots of TV dramas live off cliffhangers. You have to come back the next day to keep watching or you’ll never know who Jared found with his wife.
Small cliffhangers are almost expected in any series. In each book you have the main focus of that specific series, and a lot of resolution to everything going on, but the overall story, the one keeping all the books together as a whole, isn’t done yet. I did this with my Witch’s Trilogy. Each book is a distinct book and you can probably read any one of them and be fine without reading the other two, but there is a thread that connects them all, and it’s a fuller and richer experience as a whole. And at the end of each book there is just a short scene that connects it to the next book. A small cliffhanger, but one that hopefully gets you curious.
There are a few stories that act as episodic structures, like the original Hulk show, Jack Reacher, or 007. The story ends and the main character goes off into the sunset, and you don’t know if you’ll see them again. No cliffhangers. No real cliffhangers at the end of the episodes. Just a story. Almost all of Star Trek was done that way. A few of the series had running plots that ran through the series, but most episodes still had the story of the week aspect.
So should there be cliffhangers? Of course there will be, and in the right area they are good to have.
It really depends on what you’re going for. It’s appropriate for some stories to have an end to each episode because the characters aren’t going to be interacting with those specific people ever again. In the case of Jack Reacher, he won’t go back to that town again. A cliffhanger wouldn’t make sense because if you started a new book with him finishing up the arc from the previous show, then going to the next town with new people and starting a brand new arc, that would be weird.
Stories that end in cliffhangers usually bring the character back to the same area, and interact with the same people. TV drama is a great example. They are all in the same little town, same sets, same other actors, so cliffhangers can work because you can resolve that thread next episode and then move on.
There is one last way to use cliffhangers though, and I think it’s the most common. That is to have a single thread that winds through the story line, the theme of the series, and have that be the cliffhanger each episode. Supernatural is a perfect example. That show has been going on forever. Each episode has it’s own story that is completed in the 45 min episode, and also adds to the over all story that is effecting that season. They get a little closer to that seasons villain with almost every episode. The thing bringing people back to watch it is partly the overall story, but mostly it’s just that they love those characters, and they love the monster of the week format. The overall story is just icing on the cake.
However you do cliffhangers just remember that you need SOME closure at the end of the story. If nothing is finished, and you just drop the book for a cliffhanger and say “go read the next book” I’m not going to do it. I want some closure, and if you give me NO closure then I’m not invested in your story enough to keep going.